J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Younger James Smithwick’s Controversial Marriage

The sea captain James Smithwick, who disappeared at sea with Dr. Benjamin Church in 1778, left behind a son, also named James. I mentioned him back here. When young James grew up, he also became a mariner. Most of the references to “Captain James Smithwick” that I found when I was seeking reports of Dr. Church’s departure turned out to be about the son.

The younger James Smithwick’s mother, Mary Lobb, appears to have raised him and his sisters as Catholics. He became a business partner of James Kavanagh and Matthew Cottrill, who arrived in Boston from County Wexford, Ireland, about 1781 and eventually set up a shipyard in Newcastle, Maine. Together the three owned a ship called the Hibernia, which was captured by a French privateer in 1800.

Father Francis Matignon, Boston’s first long-tenured Catholic priest, presided over Cottrill’s marriage in 1793, and Kavanagh’s in 1794. Then in 1800 the younger James Smithwick wanted to marry Mrs. Kavanagh’s sister, Eliza Jackson.

At this point Matignon’s former student Jean-Louis Lefèbvre de Cheverus was working as a missionary to the Indians out of Point Pleasant, Maine. He had become known, at least in America, as John Cheverus. (Eventually he became the first Catholic bishop of Boston, and the picture of him above comes from the blog of his latest successor.) Capt. Smithwick and Miss Jackson asked Cheverus to marry them at the Kavanaghs’ home on the first day of 1800.

The Columbian Phoenix and Boston Review was one of the publications that reported the wedding months later, when the news reached Boston:

At Damascotty [i.e., Damariscotta], by the Rev. John Chevers, Capt. James Smithwick, to the amiable and accomplished Miss Eliza Jackson, both of this town.
Naturally such an event led to a landmark lawsuit.

Under the Massachusetts marriage law of 1786, Cheverus was not authorized to marry Smithwick and Jackson. The law specified that a clergyman could marry couples only in the town where he was settled as a minister. But Cheverus had come to Damariscotta for the marriage; according to the Roman Catholic Church, his parish included all of Massachusetts and Maine.

Cheverus himself recognized the conflict between those two authorities because he advised the Smithwicks to go to a justice of the peace the day after the ceremony to make sure their marriage was legal in the eyes of the state. But he was nonetheless hauled up on charges.

Some analyses of this case say that Massachusetts Attorney General James Sullivan prosecuted it as a way of clarifying the law, perhaps even changing it. Sullivan had represented Matignon in a previous lawsuit aimed at freeing Kavanagh and Cottrill from having to pay taxes to support their town’s Protestant minister.

In August a grand jury in Wicasset indicted Cheverus. Cottrill paid his bail. The court of common pleas found in the priest’s favor, and Sullivan declined to prosecute further. However, Judge Theophilus Bradford took it upon himself to continue the case to the next court session. On the day in March 1801 that the second trial was to start, Bradford suffered a stroke. Nobody else pursued the matter, and thus a precedent was created.

TOMORROW: A last glimpse of Mary Lobb from yet another court case.

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